The world’s best winter sports athletes won’t converge on Vancouver for nearly two months, but a number of athletes who have lived and trained at the Maine Winter Sports Center facilities in Fort Kent are competing for the right to take the next step toward becoming United States Olympians.
Max Cobb, the executive director of U.S. Biathlon, said Wednesday the country’s best biathlon competitors are assembled at two venues this week.
The top-level competitors are at a Rurhgas IBU World Cup stop in Pokljuka, Slovenia, while others who hope to land an Olympic berth are in Coleraine, Minn., for the Senior and Junior Team Trials.
Faring well in Minnesota will help a select group — as many as four men and four women will move on — before the Olympic Team is selected next month.
“It’s a step in the process,” Cobb said. “The top athletes from the [five] races in Minnesota will go over to Europe in January. There they will participate in the IBU Cup, a step below the World Cup.”
In the IBU Cup races, the qualifiers from Minnesota will go head to head against some of the Americans who have been competing at the World Cup level this winter.
“The athletes from [the] Minnesota [races] will meet up with the least well-performing athletes from the World Cup and race each other,” Cobb explained. “The leaders that come out of that process will be named to the Olympic team on Jan. 11.”
Cobb said Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, N.Y., who trained at the MWSC before the last Winter Olympics, is one of two athletes who has clinched a spot on the Olympic Team. The other is Jay Hakinnen of Kasilof, Alaska.
“With their top-30 finishes [in World Cup competition] and their finishes from last season, [they’ve qualified], although they haven’t been formally named by the U.S. [Olympic Committee].”
No women have earned automatic berths on the four-member Olympic team, although as many as two could do so if they finish in the top 30 in this weekend’s IBU event. Five athletes will make up the men’s team, and one more could earn an automatic bid before the IBU Cup races, Cobb said.
The men are able to field one more athlete than the women because their results in the previous two world championships was better, Cobb said.
Several of the contenders for women’s Olympic team have ties to the MWSC and Fort Kent. Lanny Barnes and her twin sister, Tracy Colliander, both trained at the facility, as did Haley Johnson. On the men’s side, Burke, Jeremy Teela, Walt Shepard of Yarmouth and Russell Currier of Stockholm are present or past MWSC athletes.
“I think from the core group of Maine Winter Sports Center folks, Tracy Colliander, Walt Shepard and Russell Currier are probably the strongest competitors for the Olympic berths,” Cobb said.
MWSC athletes BethAnn Chamberlain of Grand Rapids, Minn., Grace Boutot of Fort Kent, Hilary McNamee of Fort Fairfield and Bill Bowler of Wausau, Wis., are also competing in Minnesota this week.
Cobb is happy to see so many Maine Winter Sports Center athletes contending for Olympic team slots. The MWSC was founded 10 years ago.
“It’s so gratifying to see all the progress the athletes from the Maine Winter Sports Center are making and continue to make on the world stage,” Cobb said. “It’s just remarkable. It is their hard work and the good coaching and the facilities that the Maine Winter Sports Center provided, those three things coming together, that have provided the opportunity for these great athletes to go on to international competition. That’s just incredibly exciting.”
MWSC hosting big events
The Maine Winter Sports Center facilities in Presque Isle and Fort Kent will host several top-notch events this winter, according to Cobb.
From March 6-13, Presque Isle will host the USSA Cross Country Junior Olympics, which Cobb described as the “biggest cross country skiing event in the country.”
A week later, from March 17-21, the U.S. Biathlon National Championships will be contested in Fort Kent.
The 10th Mountain Division Biathlon Championships will be held March 20-21 in Fort Kent, while the USSA Cross Country Marathon Championships are set for March 24, also in Fort Kent.
For more information on the many Maine Winter Sports Center events and programs, go to www.mainewsc.org.